IU engages foreign ambassadors in conversations about tackling local and international challenges

Indiana University welcomed about 30 foreign ambassadors representing countries across four continents as part of a two-day Experience America visit to Indiana through the U.S. Department of State and the Office of the Chief of Protocol.

The tour through Bloomington -- guided by Ambassador Sean P. Lawler, Chief of Protocol of the United States -- gave the ambassadors an opportunity to step outside the beltway and get a first-hand view of a Midwestern city. As a regional leader in global education and engagement, IU was an ideal stop.

During their time in the Hoosier state, the ambassadors' only visit to a higher education institution was to the state's flagship university, where they conversed with IU leaders about the university's efforts to collaborate with local, national and global partners and engage citizens in solving problems affecting people throughout the world.

From the top: IU President Michael A. McRobbie speaks to the foreign ambassadors assembled in Presidents Hall on the IU Bloomington campus; David Carden, IU Maurer School of Law alumnus and former resident ambassador of the U.S. to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations listens as Lauren Robel, IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President responds to a question; the nearly 30 ambassadors pose for a photo with IU leadership and members of the IU Crabb Band in front of Sample Gates. Photos by James Brosher, IU Communications

IU President Michael A. McRobbie and IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel were the first to greet each ambassador just outside the Sample Gates on the IU Bloomington campus.

"Though your visit is brief, I know it will do much to help strengthen the spirit of international understanding, cooperation and friendship between Indiana, the United States and your countries," McRobbie told the ambassadors assembled in Presidents Hall. "This is a spirit that Indiana University wishes to impart to its students and which Indiana University fully embraces."

McRobbie described IU as one of the most international universities in the U.S., noting that among the nearly 21,000 students receiving IU degrees during commencement ceremonies this week, 2,100 are international students who come from 136 countries. IU also teaches over 70 foreign languages, more than any other university in the nation, and IU has more than 200 active academic partnerships with leading international universities throughout the world.

In addition to IU's emphasis on global engagement, the ambassadors also learned about the university's efforts to collaborate locally with initiatives spearheaded by the Center for Rural Engagement. The center connects IU's research, teaching and academic programs, as well as other distinctive resources, with partners throughout the state to improve the lives of Hoosiers in rural communities and small regional cities.

"There are a very small number of universities that I have been able to find that are thinking comprehensively about engaging their university's research and teaching mission with communities around them," Robel told the ambassadors.

Bill Brown, the Center for Rural Engagement's executive director, described how the efforts of 550 students in 20 courses from schools and departments across the Bloomington campus have already had an impact on Lawrence County. Their efforts are part of the center's Sustaining Hoosier Communities initiative, which addressed 15 community-identified projects in the 2017-18 academic year.

Brown said the center's initiatives are the largest rural version of work typically done in urban areas of the country. 

The ambassadors were curious about the challenges the center faced in achieving its goals as well as its plans to expand and network globally.

Robel emphasized the importance of building trust in the communities where IU was seeking to make a difference through the work of IU Corps, the student engagement arm of the Center for Rural Engagement. She referred to the students and faculty members in the community as a "trust army."

She also pointed out that the issues facing rural Indiana are not dissimilar from challenges to citizens all over the world such as access to clean water, adequate food supplies, good health care, and broadband internet.

Higher education institutions like IU have the capacity to convene important conversations about these issues and bring stakeholders together, said David Carden, an IU Maurer School of Law alumnus who recently served as the first resident ambassador of the U.S. to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

As IU uses its resources in the community, "it becomes a great citizen amongst many," Carden said.

There wasn't time for every question during the meeting that may have included the largest number of foreign ambassadors ever to be on the Bloomington campus at one time, but the ambassadors expressed an interest in continuing the conversation.

"Your work would resonate with many of our countries," said Daniel Mulhall, Ireland's ambassador to the United States. "I hope you can develop a network with academics around the world with similar interests who might be able to share knowledge and interests with you."

The ambassadors' visit concluded with a stop at the School of Global and International Studies, where they were hosted by the dean, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein, and a distinguished scholar, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton.